Twickenham has had a long history of welcoming birds of prey through its gates for various reasons. Initially, they were a necessity, employed to deal with the stadium’s serious pigeon problem, but now they come of their own accord.
Until 2012, Harris Hawks were brought in on a weekly basis from local pest control firm Hawkforce. Pigeons had become a nuisance, gathering in large numbers to feast on grass seed, preventing turf regrowth and therefore damaging the grounds. Though weekly hawk flights did not eradicate their presence altogether, they did scare the pigeons enough to stop them nesting in the stadium, limiting the damage caused by reducing the feral pests to visitors, rather than residents.
Harris Hawks, native to Central and South America, were the best birds for the job, being highly intelligent and taking only 3 to 4 weeks to train. They are also calm and lack the aggressive instinct present in other species; thus, when well fed, they are highly unlikely to attack pigeons and other pests, but merely to scare them off. For these reasons, they are one of the most common bird of prey species used in the UK for public flight displays and pest control – but interestingly, it is always females that have to do all the work. Female Harris Hawks are a third larger than their male counterparts, due to their child-bearing duties, and therefore are more effective in scaring smaller creatures. Two of the longest serving birds at Twickenham were Binki and Rio, two old matriarchs who performed weekly flights for several years between them, and sometimes attended together.
However, in 2012 things changed. The RFU invested £1.2 million in a new, state-of-the-art Desso Grassmaster pitch, which involved installing strands of artificial grass at 2cm intervals, to support and stabilise the surrounding real grass stems. This made the turf slightly more pigeon-proof, but it was another factor which made the work of the Harris Hawks obsolete. The return of the Peregrine Falcon to the London skyline meant that Twickenham had a natural pigeon-repellent. Peregrines are the fastest birds in the world, reaching flight speeds of 200mph, and have made a huge comeback in the past five years by moving into cities and nesting on tall urban buildings that act as vantage points. A pair of peregrines are now frequent visitors to the pitch – most likely the renowned West London pair who have made their home on the roof of Charing Cross Hospital. The couple, Tom and Charlie, had nested there for 9 years before the sad death of Charlie in 2019. However, Tom has reportedly moved on very quickly, and now has a new partner who has replaced Charlie on the hospital roof! Tom and his new lady are often seen hunting in Richmond Park and Barnes, but no doubt stray into Twickenham for a pigeon-sized snack now and again.
Peregrines and Harris Hawks have not been the only raptors who have made their presence felt at Twickenham over the years. In 2009, a White-Tailed Sea Eagle, to add a sense of occasion, was trained to deliver the match ball onto the pitch in the Harlequins vs London Wasps Guinness Premiership Match. The Sea Eagle is the largest bird of prey in the UK, with a wingspan of two metres. The specimen was brought to a practice match two weeks before to get used to the crowds, alongside training in the empty stadium, and on December 27th completed his task with flying colours! He got a little disorientated by the noise and perched on a stand for a while, but eventually delivered the ball to the correct position, receiving a huge round of applause from spectators.
With such an exciting record of raptors in the stadium, we can only hope that Twickenham continues its strong association with birds of prey. From the fastest to the largest, it has hosted many fine specimens who have helped to make the place what it is today.
About the Author – Cecilia Neil-Smith is reading History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London. She has been part of the World Rugby Museum team since 2019.